Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect

Slate featured this excerpt from Learn Better about how, in order to get better at something, you need to know what you’re doing wrong.

Smart, focused criticism helps us figure out how to improve. Feedback makes us realize what we’re doing wrong and how we can do it right. As researcher John Hattie writes in his book Visible Learning, “the most powerful single influence enhancing achievement is feedback.

”I’ll admit that I had long ignored this fact in my basketball life. Before pick-up games, I’d often go to the local gym to try and improve but I wouldn’t really monitor my outcomes. I didn’t get any feedback on my footwork or track the number of shots that fell in. Practice expert Anders Ericsson sees this all the time, and he told me that when most people practice, “they don’t have a clear idea of what they should improve, and so they’re just wasting their time.

When it came to hoops, better forms of practice¾and targeted feedback¾eventually came in the form of Dwane Samuels. During his 20s, Samuels had played basketball at some big-name colleges, notching up minutes in summer leagues against NBA All-Stars like Ben Wallace. Later, Samuels found a spot playing for the Washington Generals, the Harlem Globetrotters’ perennial opponents.


Education debates don’t focus enough on teaching and learning

I wrote this piece for ThinkProgress about the need to focus education debates around improving everyday classroom practice. Here’s the gist of the piece:


Most school reform headlines focus on a pretty narrow area of policy. The latest voucher study will spark fierce debates, while pundits write heated op-eds on the benefits of non-elected school boards. In Denver, discussions of charter schools funding dominate the education debate. In Los Angeles, the conversation is all about school choice.

These issues are important. Private school vouchers could decimate the nation’s public school system. But just about all of these policy debates revolve around a limited set of governance issues and don’t touch on ways to improve everyday classroom practice.

This administration-heavy approach to reform stands in contrast to the research, and a growing body of evidence — and, really, common sense — suggests that instructional reform can dramatically improve learning. A forthcoming study by researcher Chris Schunn shows that curriculum changes, such as spacing out content, can provide a large boost to student outcomes. Inexpensive online professional development could improve test-scores as much as lowering class size, according to a paper released last year by Kirabo Jackson and Alexey Makarin.


But take a look at the full article–and tell me what you think.


Why I learned how to do math with the ancient abacus

Vox recently featured an excerpt from my new book Learn Better. I pasted the nut of the story below:


As a technology, the abacus predates the making of glass and the invention of the alphabet. The Romans had some sort of counting device with beads. So did the early Greeks. The word “calculate” comes from the expression “drawing pebbles,” basically using some sort of abacus-like device to do math.

Researchers from Harvard to China have studied the device, showing that abacus students often learn more than students who use more modern approaches. UC San Diego psychologist David Barner led one of the studies, and he argues that abacus training can significantly boost math skills with effects potentially lasting for decades. “Based on everything we know about early math education and its long-term effects, I’ll make the prediction that children who thrive with abacus will have higher math scores later in life, perhaps even on the SAT,” Barner told me.





Buzzfeed Quiz

Quizzing is a highly effective way to learn, and so I had a colleague help me pull together a Buzzfeed quiz that tests your knowledge of learning to learn. Like all things Buzzfeed, the quiz is a little goofy. But it does include an awesome Batman gif.

Tell me what you think in the comments.

Education Can Boost GDP Even More Than We Thought

Policymakers and the public often talk about how important education is for the economy, saying that schooling promotes higher incomes, better jobs, and more growth.

Last month, for instance, Vice President Joe Biden argued that college degrees are crucial to national prosperity. “Six in 10 jobs will require some kind of education beyond high school,” Biden said at an event in Denver. “Twelve years is not enough.”

But how much does education really matter when it comes to the economy? A new research paper gives some key insight into this question, and it turns out schooling might have a bigger impact than even some of the staunchest education advocates have argued.

“Empirical research has shown that education is indeed one – if not the most – important determinant of economic growth in the long run,” Ludger Wössmann 

The paper, published in Education Economics last month, argues that education might actually be the biggest single driver of economic development. What’s more, robust skills and knowledge turn out to be critical, underscoring once again that the country needs to a lot more to improve its school system.

In other words, if there’s one investment that policymakers should make to boost the country’s GDP, it’s investing in schools.

University of Munich’s Ludger Wössmann wrote the paper as a way to convince policymakers of the strong connection between education and the economy. I first came across the study in the Twitter stream of former teacher Paul Bruno, and it turned out that Wössmann had looked at a wide variety of indicators, such as unemployment rates and income levels, showing that they’re all deeply linked to higher levels of schooling.

But the strongest connection might be between student achievement and economic development. Using a host of international exams, such as TIMSS, Wössmann found that student outcomes explained some 75 percent of recent economic development. Or as Wössmann writes in the paper, “empirical research has shown that education is indeed one – if not the most – important determinant of economic growth in the long run.”

When I reached Wössmann in his office in Germany to discuss his findings, he told me that “again and again, I am surprised at how robust and consistent the evidence is for education as a determinate of economic growth.”

For Wössmann, the key driver isn’t paper credentials like a high school or college diploma. Those matter, of course. What made a bigger economic difference was strong skills and knowledge. “It’s really about achievement levels,” Wössmann told me. “Not how long you went to school.”

While Wössmann wrote an early draft of the paper for policymakers in the European Union, the analysis arrives at a key moment for the education debate in the United States. In the short-term, negotiators in Congress are working to hammer out a reauthorized version of the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act. And, given the results of Wössmann’s study, congressional leaders should emphasize reforms that promote student learning. In the short term, that includes high standards for students and equitable funding so that all children have the opportunity to thrive in the classroom.

In the longer term, the nation needs to do far more to upgrade its education system. That means pushing forward on thoughtful initiatives that promote deeper knowledge and skills like implementing the new Common Core standards and boosting the quality of the teacher workforce.

When it comes to education, it’s easy to forget that we’re in a high-stakes race with other nations, many of which are dramatically turning around their schools. China’s high school graduation rate has skyrocketed in recent years, while other nations like Peru have “improved the equivalent of almost two grades in math and one grade in reading and science” on international exams.

Almost no one argues that education plays no role in economic development. Even skeptics like economist Edward Wolff believe that schooling has an important role in creating robust economies. But Wössmann’s research underscores just how important education is for the nation’s future, and if our country does not do more to improve its schools now, it’s undoubtedly going to lose its economic edge later.

Image courtesy of Didier Weemaels

This blog item first appeared at US News and World Report. 

Center for American Progress Announces New Initiative on the Science of Learning

I helped launch a science of learning effort at the Center for American Progress. Here’s the press release:

Washington, D.C. — Today, the Center for American Progress announced a new initiative to promote the science of learning, aimed at examining ways to apply the new research on learning to education policy. CAP Senior Fellow Ulrich Boser is the founding director of the effort.

“This project aims to put the learning sciences at the forefront of school reform, showing how the nation can dramatically improve how teachers teach and students learn,” said Boser. “This effort will bring much-needed attention to the ways that the new science of learning can help schools, teachers, and students, going a long way to ensuring that all children—regardless of their family backgrounds—have an opportunity to succeed at high levels.”

The project will aim to answer a number of pressing questions, among them: What policies at the national, state, and local levels would support the new science of learning? What programs can spark more effective forms of learning? How can researchers, policymakers, and others better translate the science of learning into actionable policy and programs?

“We are asking more and more of students, and that means we are asking more and more of teachers. Despite the advances made in the field of learning science, we often do not link this information to how schools are run,” said Carmel Martin, Executive Vice President for Policy at CAP. “This requires innovation around teaching and learning, and ensuring that education policy reflects the newest research on learning will become a key priority for CAP.”

The effort will have three strategic areas:

  • Raise the profile of the science of learning and ensure that the latest research is at the center of conversations around teaching and learning.
  • Translate the research into actionable policy and programs and help inject cognitive science principles into the education reform debate.
  • Identify barriers to adoption and present compelling new ideas that will help schools and districts succeed. In this regard, CAP will aim to identify policy barriers that limit innovation, as well as detail structural issues that inhibit the development of better schools, such as more flexible forms of scheduling.

The project will begin putting out columns, issue briefs, and other products within the next month. In spring 2017, Boser will release a book, Learn Better: Six Strategies for Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, focused on mapping out the science of learning and capitalizing on the mind’s ability to develop new skills.

For more information or to speak with an expert, contact Allison Preiss at [email protected] or 202.478.6331.

How Deep Processing Shapes Learning

When it comes to learning, people often describe the mind as a computer. But that’s not quite right because the analogy makes it seem like our brains are robotic in their ability to absorb information, that data enters the brain and then automatically becomes stashed away in a mental hard drive.

But in order to learn, the brain needs to process information deeply, and studies show that we can’t gain any sort of new skill or expertise without really engaging in an idea or skill or bit of knowledge.

“You can be motivated to learn but if you use a shallow strategy, you won’t learn,” Stephen Chew

Stephen Chew has written thoughtfully about this point. A professor at Samford University, Chew is one of my favorite observers of the new science of learning, and he has put a together a wonderful study guide for college students.

Some time ago, Chew sent me an email, giving an example of how the brain needs to meaningfully process information in order to learn it. He makes the point that we need to find information meaningful in order to really gain any sort of expertise and describes an informal experiment that he’ll do with audiences.

With Chew’s permission, I’m posting his description in full:

“I give workshops to various groups (faculty, student life staff, students, and tutors) on how people learn to help teachers teach more effectively, students learn more effectively, and support staff and tutors teach students to learn more effectively. In my workshop, I almost always include a demonstration of deep processing and learning that is based on research first published in 1969 by Thomas Hyde and Jim Jenkins (who was my grad school advisor).

“The amazing thing to me is that this simple principle has been well established for about 45 years but is largely unknown outside cognitive psychology. And even most cognitive psychologists have never thought about its implications for teaching.

“If you use a deep processing strategy, you will learn whether you intend to or not,” Stephen Chew

“The basic idea is that if you think about information meaningfully (deep processing), you are much more likely to remember that information than if you think about at a superficial, meaningless level (shallow processing). And this is true regardless of whether you intend to learn the material or not.

“When I do this demonstration to a large audience, I divide them up into 4 groups without their being aware of it. I hand out a sheet of instructions, but there are actually 4 versions of instructions. The instructions say that I will read a list of 24 words. For each word, they need to carry out a task. For half of the audience, the task is to check “Yes” if the word contains an “e” or “g” (Hyde and Jenkins used just an “e” but latter Jenkins changed it to both an “e” or “g” to make it a bit more interesting).

“The other half of the audience checks “Yes” if the word is pleasant to them or “No” if it is not. So half are getting E/G checking and the other half are getting Pleasantness rating. Now half of each of those groups is warned that they will be asked to recall as many of the 24 words as possible after the task is over. The other half are not warned. This creates 4 groups, based on the kind of task they do and whether or not they were warned about recall.

“The amazing thing to me is that this simple principle has been well established for about 45 years but is largely unknown outside cognitive psychology,” Stephen Chew

“The pleasantness and E/G checking tasks are called orienting tasks because they make people process information in a certain way regardless of their intention. Hyde and Jenkins found that orienting tasks that induce deeper processing (pleasantness) lead to better recall than shallow ones (E/G checking), regardless of people’s intention to learn.

“I read the list of 24 words and everyone carries out their orienting task. After reading all the words, I then ask everyone to recall as many of the words as possible. When they can’t recall any more, they count up how many they recalled. We then do a poll to find out which of the four groups recalled the most words.



Samford University Professor Stephen Chew

“The deep processing groups recall the most words, regardless of whether they were warned about the recall task or not. And the shallow processing groups recall fewer words, once again with no difference between those who were warned about recall and those who were not. So people who processed words deeply but were not expecting the recall task remember many more words than people who did the shallow processing task but were warned about recall.

“Good intentions cannot overcome bad study strategies,” Stephen Chew

“It shows that depth of processing matters more than intention. You can be motivated to learn but if you use a shallow strategy, you won’t learn, and if you use a deep processing strategy, you will learn whether your intend to or not.

“I sum it up by saying that ‘Good intentions cannot overcome bad study strategies” So teachers need to think of their teaching assignments and activities as orienting tasks, and students need to think of their note taking and studying in terms of depth of processing.



Schools Expect Too Much of Working Parents

While balancing work and family life is never a simple task, it often seems that public schools add to the problem. A few weeks ago, for instance, the school nurse rang me up: My 8-year-old daughter had a headache. Could I come by the school with some Tylenol?

Due to school policy the school nurse couldn’t administer one of the most widely used, over-the-counter drugs in the world—meaning I needed to table my work and visit the school to help give my daughter a tablespoon of basic medicine.

The week before that, our school closed its doors for the day for teacher training, throwing a different wrench into my schedule. My wife and I struggled to find childcare for our daughters.

For most working parents, the difficult juggling between work schedules and school schedules is typical. School days that end mid-afternoon, frequent closings, and strict medical policies make life for many parents a heart-wrenching balancing act. But it may be taking a greater toll than many people realize.

In a new report I wrote with my colleagues at the Center for American Progress, we found that, over the course of a school year, districts close their doors for 29 weekdays on average—far more than the number of days most working parents have in paid vacation and holidays. That’s the equivalent of six full weeks of school, and these figures do not include summer vacation, early dismissals or unexpected closings due to bad weather.

This misalignment between school schedules and work schedules creates tremendous costs for parents, their children, and the economy. In fact, misaligned school schedules could be costing the U.S. economy a staggering $55 billion in lost productivity each year.

The reasons for many school closings are questionable at best. For example, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, most schools close on the opening day of deer hunting season, something that clearly has nothing to do with academic outcomes.

Meanwhile, some school policies force parents to jump through seemingly impossible hoops. In Duval County, Florida, for example, parents or guardians are expected to pick up their child from school within 60 minutes of being notified that their child has a headache or fever.

To a large degree, it often feels like school districts simply assume that one parent is always on call to attend to their child whenever school closes, is delayed, or even during a non-emergency like my daughter’s headache.

But this doesn’t reflect the realities of the modern family. There are more parents working full time than ever, and many of them don’t have flexible schedules. In fact, nearly half of all workers – part-time and full-time – report having no flexibility in their work schedules.

While poorly aligned school schedules affect all families, perhaps the greatest burden falls on low-income households. Low-income families often have little control over their work schedules, and they’re far more likely to work irregular, on-call, split, or rotating shift times. At the same time, these workers are less likely to easily afford the sky-high costs of child care, which exceeds college costs in many areas.

Fortunately, there are ways that schools can help lessen the burden on working parents. A number of schools around the country have extended their school day or year in a cost-effective manner. For instance, many schools are partnering with volunteer organizations – such as AmeriCorps and Citizen Schools – to bring on extra staff at little to no cost to help lengthen the school day. Other schools, such as the high-performing Brooklyn Generation High School in New York City, reduce costs by staggering teacher schedules.

Some schools are also rethinking the way in which they connect with parents. For instance, some school districts – like in Mason, Kentucky – are implementing parent-teacher home visits. So instead of scheduling parent-teacher conferences in the middle of the work day, teachers meet with parents in the family’s home. Other alternatives to school-based conferences include the use of online platforms such as Skype.

To be fair, designing a school calendar that meets the needs of all working parents is no simple task. Plus, some new programs like aftercare will cost additional funds, and teachers should get paid extra if they work additional hours.

But the benefits of a redesigned school schedule far outweigh the costs. Public schools should stop operating under outdated schedules and instead establish policies that reflect the needs of the modern-day working family. Because families like mine just don’t need any more headaches.

This post first appeared at US News and World Report.

“The Power of the Pygmalion Effect”

I worked together with my colleagues Megan Wilhelm and Robert Hanna on a report for the Center for American Progress called the Power of the Pygmalion Effect, which was released last week, and we found that what an educator believed a student could achieve turned out to be a deeply strong predicator of what that student did actually achieve.

The study was featured in The Root and Huffington Post. Here is our major finding. I bolded the text:

All else equal, 10th grade students who had teachers with higher expectations were more than three times more likely to graduate from college than students who had teachers with lower expectations. In other words, the expectations of teachers showed a very strong predictive relationship with college graduation rates. It cannot be said for sure that teacher expectations boosted college graduation rates. It is also possible that teachers with lower expectations were more likely to teach traditionally disadvantaged students who are less likely to succeed in colleges.

What does this all mean for our education system? In the report, we discuss that too, arguing that we

must continue to raise expectations for students. The Common Core State Standards are one of the most powerful ways to do so, and states and districts should continue to support them. In particular, education leaders need to pay attention to the standards’ implementation to ensure that they create higher expectations for students.

Check out the rest of the report and tell me what you think.

This post also appears on

Why Society Needs To Build Cohesion–And The Awkwardness Of Writing A Book On Trust

When I told people I was working on a book about our faith in others, they sometimes seemed to think I was an aspiring self-help guru. Strangers would confess to me about the times that they lost-or gained-the faith of others. One woman explained to me over drinks how she met her first husband. As I remember the story, she met the man on an airplane, and after the flight, he drove her to her home. (They later divorced.) At a birthday party, a man told me about the time that he got scammed in New York City and lost a large sum of money. Another man revealed to me that his wife had had an affair. A “personal betrayal,” he called it.


I often didn’t know how to respond to these stories. Sure, I was writing a book on trust. But I didn’t know much about the often emotional, deeply personal nature of our faith in others, and I certainly wasn’t interested in becoming the Deepak Chopra or Tony Robbins of trust. I was more focused on what sociologists call social trust, or the degree to which we place our faith in people that we don’t know. But all this spontaneous sharing made me think more deeply about the nature of our faith in others.


I’m not the first person to get tripped up in the various notions of trust, and there’s a long-standing debate over how exactly to define the term. [[or somehow specify this issue. Good point. See tweak.]] But what’s clear is that other writers on our faith in others have also tried to distance themselves from the self-help crowd. In his excellent book Liars and Outliers, for instance, security expert Bruce Schneier makes clear that he has little interest in more “intimate” forms of trust. “I’m not really concerned about how specific people come to trust other specific people,” he writes. For Schneier, what matters is what’s known as “impersonal trust.” Or as Schneier argues, he is in a way “reducing trust to consistency or predictability.”


Schneier’s argument makes sense because when we trust someone, there’s always some potential for betrayal. There’s always some possibility of duplicity, and that means that our faith in others requires strong logic and plain reason. No one, as Schneier and others have pointed out, should mindlessly place their faith in others.


But over time, I realized that I should not be so skeptical of the more personal aspects of our faith in others. After talking with various researchers¾and reading all sorts of books and articles-I came to learn that even some of the most seemingly unemotional forms of trust can be deeply emotional. In other words, policymakers who want to improve our faith in others should take a page from the self-help crowd and do more to build a sense of social intimacy and promote what neuroeconomist Paul Zak once called the “empathic human connection.”


This is clear in the research on trust. As legal scholar Yochai Benkler has argued, a personal bond-or what he calls “humanization”-can foster a sense of cooperation. When we feel a social connection with people, we’re more likely to work with them. Consider a study by economists Gary Charness and Uri Gneezy. In one behavioral economics experiment-known as the dictator game-the economists showed that people were more generous toward a stranger if they knew his or her last name.


I’ve seen this in my own life, too. Soon after I began my book, I followed the advice of Robert Putnam who argued for greater civic involvement in his seminal book Bowling Alone, and I joined a pick-up basketball league. Later, I began volunteering in a homeless shelter. Both activities helped me develop a greater sense of community, a better understanding of other people. The experiences didn’t make me trust everyone, of course. But it did give me a richer sense of perspective.


But my favorite example of the emotional aspect of seemingly unemotional types of trust is one that I write about in my book. We often believe that trust in government is all about accountability and good governance, about honesty and performance, and when people discuss low trust in Washington, they’ll mention Congressional shutdowns or the shaky roll-out of the Obamacare website. But it’s not quite so simple. Our emotions, our sense of patriotism, can also play a crucial role, according to researchers. The events of 9/11 led to a twofold increase in the percent of people who had faith in Washington to do the right thing.


The broader implications of this idea are significant. To solve pressing social and political problems, we need to do more than just address the problem itself. We also have to address the emotional side of our divisions, to do more to bring us together as a society, and even experts on impersonal trust like Schneier raise this point. In his work, for instance, Schneier recommends greater levels of “empathy and community.” Or as Schneier notes, “even though our informal social pressures fade into the background, they’re still responsible for most of the cooperation in society.”


Efforts at improving social cohesion don’t have to cost a lot of money. They don’t have to be complicated. In my book, I give the example of former St. Petersburg, Florida, Mayor Rick Baker who fostered civic connections by constructing dog parks. There’s also the former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, Antanas Mockus, who Zak discusses in his work (and I touch upon in mine), and Mockus improved the city’s sense of civic unity, according to Zak, by establishing initiatives like a “Night for Women,” a sort of city-wide festival for “wives and mothers.” Or take Portland Mayor Bud Clark, who I also write about. Clark had a “weekly brown-bag lunch date” in the 1980s. There were no restrictions on who could attend the weekly luncheons, according to news accounts. Residents just had to ring up Clark’s office.


In the end, I still don’t have marriage advice. I still don’t have dating tips. But I have learned that trust is often deeply emotional, something highly personal. As academics David Lewis and Andrew Weigert once argued, trust is a “mix of feeling and rational thinking,” and it’s that feeling-that raw, emotional sense of social togetherness–that as a society,  we need to try and regain.


This article first appeared on Slate.

LEARNING TO LEARN Why Being Smart in the Information Age Isn’t Important— and Why Learning Is

I just signed up to write a new book. The tentative title is LEARNING TO LEARN Why Being Smart in the Information Age Isn’t Important— and Why Learning Is. The publisher is Rodale; the book should come out in 2015.

Here’s a brief description from the proposal:

Learning is as essential to being human as breathing. It is something we all do throughout our lives, consciously and unconsciously, at work, at school, at home. But what is learning, exactly? What does it mean to learn? For centuries, experts have argued that education was about information: You’re supposed to study facts and dates and details. You learn to become knowledgeable and to apply that knowledge means you’ve learned something. But it turns out that this approach to learning doesn’t fit the world that we live in today. Nor does it match up with what science has shown works.

Instead, research now demonstrates that what matters isn’t so much what we have learned, but how we learn. Learning isn’t a means to a goal. It often is the goal. What’s more, it turns out that once you know how to learn, you can learn almost anything, and as a society, we need much deeper forms of education, where information and knowledge work to foster the creativity and problem-solving skills that are what ultimately matter in today’s economy. Or think of it this way: When it comes to schooling, the traditional three Rs of education–reading, writing, and arithmetic–are woefully inadequate. Instead, we need to engage a new set of “Rs”–what I call the six Rs of learning: rigor, resilience, routine, interest, resourcefulness, and reflection. 

I hope to post more in the coming weeks.

Photo: Sara Cimino.